The Founding of the Boatyard

Excerpted with permission from Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha's Vineyard, by Tom Dunlop.

They each came to Martha’s Vineyard with long experiences of — and a profound respect for  — things built the old-fashioned way.

In the late spring of 1974, Ross Gannon, a trained engineer who moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1969, was building homes using timbers saved from old buildings for which a suburbanizing world no longer had purpose or room.

Nat Benjamin, after spending several years with his wife and young daughter delivering sailboats to the Caribbean and exploring the Mediterranean on their own boat, had settled in Vineyard Haven in 1972. Nat found work at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, all the while taking note of the small but increasing number of wooden sailboats that needed repair in the harbor.

The two men were casual friends, both in their late twenties and residents of Vineyard Haven. Both were builders and craftsmen, and most important, both thought there was nothing quite so useful, or delightful, than to work with a good piece of wood.

Now, on a spring evening in 1974, Ross and a few other friends came to the Benjamin home for a bon voyage dinner. The Benjamins’ family boat, Sorcerer, a wooden, engineless ten-meter racing sloop built in 1921 in Norway, was tied up in Majorca, Spain. The sloop was being sold to an Island man who wanted her sailed to the Vineyard.

Ross made his first trans-Atlantic passage under sail, aboard Sorcerer, helping to successfully deliver the boat to Nat and his wife Pam, who used the proceeds from the sale of the boat to buy their Vineyard home.

Four years later, Ross came to Nat’s house on a fall morning to ask for advice about Urchin, his wooden thirty-six-foot Casey cutter. With a friend, the late Ed Warsyk, Ross had hauled Urchin onto the beach at the head of the harbor using a cradle, rollers, planks, and Ed’s Land Rover. The boat was bigger than the two Ross had owned and worked on earlier in his life, and important structural parts of Urchin were in pretty tough shape.

Most crucially, nearly all of Urchin’s frames - the structural ribs of the hull - needed to be replaced. This was a complicated process, requiring skill and swiftness. It meant heating six-to-eight-foot timbers of white oak in a steam box for just the right length of time, then - one after the other - pounding them quickly but forcefully down into the hull with a sledgehammer, and bending and clamping them to the shape of the frames they were to replace before they cooled too much and hardened. The frames were one and a half inch square, larger than any Ross had dealt with before, and he wanted counsel about how to work with them.

By then, Nat had earned a solid reputation for restoring wooden boats and building wooden dinghies and dories in a workshop at the family home, just up the road from the harbor. When Ross knocked on his door to ask for advice, Nat went one step further. He offered to help. “And he did,” Ross recalls. “I just went to ask him a friendly question and get some advice, and he came down and helped me bend in almost every framei in the boat.”

As Nat and Ross worked, they discussed all the other young men and women in town who needed help with old wooden boats of their own. Vineyard Haven, in the fall of 1978, was full of them. … They were part of a larger collection of young nonconformists who were meeting in harbors up and down the Atlantic coastline and around the world.  Many of these sailors of wooden boats heard about the harbor, some came to visit, and each year one or two stayed; by 1978 there were at least a dozen large wooden boats and many smaller ones in Vineyard Haven. But like Ross’s cutter Urchin, a fairi number were in poor condition, and their owners needed skilled planki-on-framei boatbuilders to help keep them on the water and under sail.

It took two days for Nat and Ross to reframe Urchin on the beach. By the end of the second afternoon, the men had decided to start a boatyard devoted to the repair and maintenance of wooden boats. “When we started our boatyard,” says Nat, “it was really because of the clear evidence of this growing wooden boat community in Vineyard Haven Harbor. Most of the wooden boats in Vineyard Haven are owned by tradesmen, schoolteachers - they’re not people who can afford to say to the shipyard, ‘Fix it.’ Some are, but most of them aren’t.”           

“So we wanted to help these people out, because we were part of them. We were them. And that was one of the main purposes of the boatyard - to provide a railway where, if people wanted to do their own work, fine; if they wanted some help, fine; if they wanted us to do everything, fine. But at least make it possible for people to work on their boats.”

It took nearly two years to find the right waterfront lot and secure it with a lease. Just south of the beach where Nat and Ross had re-framed Urchin was a piece of land where some of the barges and rearmament boats were built during World War II. More recently, the town had fought off an attempt by a mainland entrepreneur to open a McDonald’s there. In response to that threat, the town had restricted all new enterprises along the harbor front to marine use only.

During the summer of 1980 the partners began to organize a shop in a shed filled with old nets and cobwebs. They built a cradle and pier, acquired tools, rebuilt old machinery, laid down a railway to haul and launch boats, and cleared space upstairs for a sail-making loft.

As expected, traditional boats in Vineyard Haven began to line up right away for rebuilding and repair - a gaff-rigged sloop from 1904, a gaff-rigged Bahamian sloop from 1950 - but word of Gannon and Benjamin went out beyond the harbor breakwater, and soon Nat and Ross were working on a wooden commercial fishing boat from the neighboring Island harbor of Oak Bluffs and on a catboat that arrived in pieces from a boatyard in East Providence, Rhode Island.

It was also clear that Gannon and Benjamin was set up to do more than repair and restoration work. In 1980, there were few other boatyards in the country quite like it. Here was a self-sufficient operation, attending exclusively to boats of wood, hewing frames and planks from lumber and fastening them together with screws and nuts and bolts of bronze. Most distinctively, there was both a designer and an engineer in the shop who could build a new wooden boat to suit an owner's needs.

Given the Vineyard’s long, proven, and nearly uninterrupted experience of traditional vessels, it should have been no surprise that the first boat launched by a yard set up to minister to old boats was, in fact, a new one. In August of 1980 Gannon and Benjamin christened Sally May, a twenty-five-foot Canvasback sloop, designed for singer James Taylor by Nat and built at Nat’s shop the previous winter. As soon as Sally May was launched, there came an order for a twenty-foot gaff sloop, then a second Canvasback. As the two men began working together that first summer, Ross had figured that when the season ended, he'd go back to building houses until the following spring, when he and Nat both hoped more boats would come in for maintenance and repair.

“In the beginning,” says Ross, “we never dreamed the boatyard would be full- time right from day one. But that first winter we had a new boat to build. Shocking!"